Israel, Cyprus, and a Personal Journey Through the Crusades
“Would you mind stopping here for a minute, so I can take a couple photos?”
My guide pulled over, on a nondescript road surrounded by nothing but farmland. I’d asked to come here, following a day of sightseeing in the Golan Heights and around the Sea of Galilee, but without a guide, I never would have known what to look for. I snapped several pictures of a ridge with two small crests, an unimpressive landmark with a name just about any student of military history would immediately recognize as the site of one of history’s great turning points.
On July 4, 1187, near that ridge, the Ayyubid Sultan Salah al-Din (Saladin) and his Saracen army almost completely annihilated the fighting forces of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Few knights escaped, the rest were killed or captured and sold into slavery. The King of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan, and his chief vassal Reynald de Chatillon were captured. As was the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Gerard de Ridefort. The battle left Jerusalem near-defenseless, and the city surrendered to Saladin after a brief siege three months later.
After Jerusalem, much of the remaining Kingdom of Jerusalem fell into Muslim hands, leaving several isolated fortresses and the coastal city of Tyre as the final redoubts of the largest and most important Crusader state. In response, Europe mobilized against Saladin. By 1189, three of Europe’s great kings had pledged themselves and their armies to what would become the Third Crusade: The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, France’s Philip II Augustus, and England’s Richard the Lionheart. Barbarossa’s army was larger than the other two combined, but he died during his passage through Anatolia and his army scattered, with only a small contingent reaching the Holy Land. His untimely death remains one of history’s great what-ifs.
Philip and Richard would travel by sea – the former arrived at the walls of an already-besieged Acre in early 1191 without much difficulty, but Richard’s fleet was scattered and diverted to Cyprus by a terrible storm. His fiancée and sister were captured by the local ruler, Isaac Komnenos, a pretender to Byzantine throne, who despite Richard’s warnings, refused to release them. At a field near the ancient ruins of Amathus, just east of Limassol, Richard defeated Isaac and sent him into hiding. Richard quickly conquered the entire island, and following his departure from the region in 1192, gifted it to the Crusaders. Cyprus would remain in Crusader hands for the next several centuries as a possession of the Lusignans, and served as a vital lifeline to the Holy Land until the Crusaders were expelled permanently a century later.
One cannot tell the story of the Crusades in a single essay; to do so would involve reducing 300 years of European and Islamic history with it. Even in the Holy Land, the primary and most famous theater of religious conflict during that period, one could spend a lifetime studying its non-military aspects alone. But while on a trip to Israel and Cyprus with my father this past May, I attempted to see as many of its physical remnants as possible. Having participated in a Birthright trip previously, I had already seen most of Israel’s sites of Jewish and Israeli national importance, and aside from an obligatory return to the Western Wall, wasn’t looking to retrace any steps.
The Galilee Valley is a major Christian pilgrimage destination. Tour buses shuttle pilgrims from town to town, each named in the Bible as a place of significance in the lives of Jesus and his disciples. These thousands of tourists pass through likely unaware of Hattin entirely. They also ignore Belvoir Fortress, an impressive site just south of the Sea of Galilee that served as a stronghold of the Knights Hospitaller. After the fall of Jerusalem, Saladin besieged it for a year and a half until the Hospitallers finally surrendered it. It remains one of the best-preserved Crusader castles in Israel.
The guest center is no longer in use, ostensibly due to lack of visitor traffic. We saw a single couple walking amidst the ruins, which is two people more than we saw at Arsuf Castle just outside Tel Aviv. The ruins of Arsuf’s impressive coastal fortress stand next to a partially-excavated medieval town within Apollonia National Park. Just a couple miles from that town, Richard defeated Saladin in the last major engagement of the Third Crusade. The impressive excavation and preservation of the many sites we visited was matched only by my disappointment in the lack of interest from other tourists. Our guide said he hadn’t been to Arsuf in a decade.
Some Crusader sites are more frequently travelled, the walled city of Acre for instance, but others like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem draw their annual hundreds of thousands almost exclusively for Biblical significance. The Church of the Nativity, built on the supposed site of Jesus’ birth, also served as the coronation site for every King of Jerusalem from the kingdom’s establishment in 1099 until Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the supposed sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, also serves as the resting place for those same Crusader kings. Two unmarked stone benches are believed to mark the burial sites of Jerusalem’s first rulers, Godfrey de Bouillon and his brother King Baldwin I; their ornate tombs were destroyed two centuries ago in a fight between opposing Christian sects. Without a guide, tourists walk past these benches unaware of their significance.
The Crusader period is among the most deeply misunderstood and underappreciated in contemporary culture. Unfairly caricatured as little more than a centuries-long holy war waged by Christian invaders to conquer and subjugate Muslim lands in Levant, the Crusades in reality completely transformed European and Near East politics, economics, and religion. They built empires and destroyed others, reshaped the Catholic Church, revolutionized international trade, and yes, scarred the collective memories of many peoples through systematic persecution and wholesale massacres of populations.
Two English kings went on Crusade to the Holy Land in the course of two centuries, as did three Holy Roman Emperors and three French kings. One of those French kings, Louis IX, was canonized as Saint Louis for his piety and two failed campaigns against the Egyptian Mamluks, the Seventh and Eighth Crusades. One of those Holy Roman Emperors, Frederick II, was alternately called “Stupor Mundi” and the “8th Wonder of the World” for his great intellect, curiosity of foreign peoples, and extreme religious tolerance. Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most important and influential women in medieval history, accompanied her first husband Louis VII of France on the Second Crusade, and then ruled England as regent for nearly two years while her son Richard was away on the Third Crusade.
The sack of Constantinople and its plunder at the end of the Fourth Crusade mortally wounded the Byzantine Empire and birthed a Venetian one. The rump state that re-emerged some decades later never returned to Byzantium’s former glory, and somehow limped on for two more centuries before the Ottomans extinguished it. Crusading energy was directed in support of the centuries-long Spanish Reconquista, and the gradual, brutal Christianization of Baltic pagans.
When the first Latin Christian princes began their march through Anatolia in 1097, Sunni Muslim power was decentralized across multiple quarreling sultans and emirs under the suzerainty of the Seljuk Turks. The Shi’ite Fatamids ruled Egypt, and at times over the next century allied with the Crusaders against common Sunni threats. By the time Europe’s crusading kings arrived at the shores of Acre in 1191, Saladin and his immediate predecessors had conquered Fatamid Egypt and re-established Sunni hegemony over the Arab world for the first time since the early 10thCentury.
The Mamluks usurped control from Saladin’s successors and their Sultan Baibars had all but finished off the remaining Crusader states at the time of his death in 1277. However, much of the 13th Century was defined by the Mongol invasion of Central Asia and greater Syria, and the Steppes peoples migrating west to flee them. Jerusalem, briefly bloodlessly regained by Frederick II in the Sixth Crusade, fell and was sacked by one of these groups, the Khwarezmians. Though the Mongols failed to conquer the region themselves, or even restore Latin Christian control through newly-forged alliances, they and subsequent Eurasian land empires would keep the region in a state of flux until the early 15th Century.
As Steven Runciman notes in his landmark three-volume history of the Crusader states, their story actually begins with early Christianity and the splintering of the faith into hundreds of sects across the Middle East. The Muslim conquest of the region established a far different paradigm for Christianity than seen in Europe, where the Church gradually purged heterodoxy from domains under its influence. The dhimmi system allowed smaller Christian communities to practice their variants of the faith free from the pressure of conformity, effectively protecting them from Rome’s reach. When Latin Christians arrived in the Holy Land, they found not only the Greek Orthodox, but also Copts, Armenians, Syriacs, Maronites, and many smaller sects.
Maronites ultimately broke with other Eastern Orthodox sects and affirmed communion with Rome in 1180. This legacy of the Crusader era carried tremendous implications for the Levant into the Early Modern period, when Catholic France began cultivating a strong relationship with the Ottoman-ruled Maronites. This bond continued into the 20thCentury and would influence the creation of modern Lebanon
Islam also endured significant shifts leading up to and during the Crusader period. Shi’ism’s two-and-a-half century reign over Egypt ended with Saladin’s conquest, permanently relegating its Isma’ili branch to minority status throughout the region. Just prior to the launch of the First Crusade, a political schism amongst Isma’ilis birthed the Nizaris, who in the Levant would gain notoriety as the “Hashashin” (Assassins). This group developed a mythos over the course of history rivaling that of Templars, and in 1192 assassinated Conrad of Montferrat just prior to his coronation as King of Jerusalem.
The Fatamid “Mad Caliph” Al-Hakim ordered the first Church of the Holy Sepulchre destroyed in 1009, along with hundreds of other churches throughout the region (Al-Hakim would also become a central figure in the Druze tradition for entirely unrelated reasons). Though the church was rebuilt several decades later as part of a broader agreement between one of his successors and the Byzantine emperor, Al-Hakim’s actions left their mark on Christendom. When Pope Urban II spoke at the Council of Clermont in 1095, he invoked the Sepulchre’s destruction and the need to protect Christian holy sites in his call for what would become the First Crusade.
Today, the Holy Sepulchre is among the most-visited Christian sites in Israel, and its division between various Christian sects remains both an intractable tension amongst those groups and an enduring curiosity of tourists. Aforementioned conflicts, particularly between the Armenian Church, the Greek Orthodox, and the Franciscans, have produced significant damage to the Sepulchre and a large number of casualties since the 18th Century. The Franciscans themselves are deeply intertwined with the Crusades. The Order’s founder and namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, accompanied the failed Fifth Crusade to Egypt in 1219, around the same time the first Franciscan chapters were spreading to the Levant. The Franciscans would eventually become Rome’s representatives at holy sites throughout the region, collectively known as the Custody of the Holy Land.
Contrast the experience of Middle Eastern Christians with the fate of the Cathars, a dualist sect of Christianity that proliferated throughout southern France and the Rhineland during the 12th and early 13th Centuries. Pope Innocent III, who had already overseen the disastrous Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople in 1204, directed a new campaign against these “heretical” Cathars in France’s Languedoc region in 1209. This Albigensian Crusade (named for the city of Albi) would terrorize the region for two decades, and involved a particularly horrifying massacre at Beziers (“Kill them all. God will recognize his own.”)
The campaign proved a formative moment in French and Catholic histories. In its aftermath, Pope Gregory IX established the first permanent Inquisition, aimed at purging the remnants of Catharism, and entrusted the newly-created Dominican Order in Toulouse with prosecuting that mission. The Inquisition and the Dominican Order would achieve fame (or notoriety) in later centuries, but both were byproducts of the Crusades. Moreover, the Albigensian Crusade took on a political dimension, progressively morphing into a war of conquest by the French crown against Languedoc. The region’s Occitan people, today considered no different from their northern French countrymen, at the time had a language and culture more closely resembling that of the Catalans in neighboring Aragon.
The Knights Templar remain the sole vestige of the Crusader period that appear to have endured in popular culture, often portrayed as a cultish, shadowy organization at the heart of numerous historical conspiracies. That mythos aside, the Templars did effectively invent modern banking, and with their many chapter houses throughout Europe and the Levant, may qualify as the world’s first multinational corporation. Crusading soldiers and pilgrims could deposit money at one of these chapters and receive an authorization for withdrawal at another thousands of miles away. In building this commercial empire, the Templars were able to finance the construction of many castles and maintain a standing army of thousands to protect pilgrims and other Christian possessions in the Holy Land. However, the wealth they amassed inspired both distrust and jealousy, which eventually led to their infamous downfall.
In Acre, we visited the Templar Tunnel, which the Order built from their fortress to the city’s harbor. It allowed the Order’s members to travel across the city quickly and to avoid intermingling with commoners or exposing themselves to the elements. Multiple chambers discovered above the tunnel suggest it also served as a storehouse for goods.
The most impressive structure in Acre, aside from perhaps its Ottoman-era walls, is the Hospitaller Fortress in the northeast quarter of the city. The Knights Hospitaller were founded in the early 12th Century, primarily to establish and manage hospitals throughout the region. However, like the Templars, they quickly evolved into an elite military order and built a number of impressive castles, including Belvoir and the Krak des Chevaliers in modern Syria.
Kolossi Castle is another incredibly well-preserved site, having been the primary stronghold of the Knights Hospitaller on Cyprus through the 13thand 14thCenturies. Perhaps more interesting than the fortification itself is the ruined structure beside it: a sugar factory. The Hospitallers, like the Templars, eventually evolved from their primary role to large-scale commercial operators. Prior to the Crusades, sugar was nearly unheard of in Europe, but the 13thCentury saw cultivation and export of sugar grow dramatically, especially on Cyprus.
Unlike the Templars, who were effectively snuffed out in the 14thCentury, the Hospitallers would go on to play a tremendous role in early modern European history. They eventually moved to Rhodes (now known as the Knights of St. John) and fortified that island against the Ottomans, though were forced to surrender it after a siege in 1522. From there, they moved to Malta, and successfully defended it against another Ottoman siege in 1565. The Knights of St. John retained control of Malta until Napoleon conquered it en route to Egypt in 1798.
My Jewish ancestors endured countless atrocities over the course of three millennia, some of the most brutal directly as a result of the Crusades. In the runup to the First Crusade in 1096, religious fervor inspired mob violence throughout the Rhineland, resulting in massacres of nearly every Jew in Worms, Mainz and Strasbourg. We have rich, if embellished accounts from contemporary Jewish chronicles such as Solomon bar Simson and that of Eliezer bar Nathan.
Muslim sources covering the Crusades exist, but are largely absent from modern academic curricula save courses specifically addressing them. The name Ibn Jubayr is buried in my notes from a junior year class titled “Islam and the Crusades.” Through him and others we can validate contemporary Christian accounts that Crusader feudal lords and their knights typically exhibited tolerance towards their Muslim subjects. While these stories and those of Islamic tolerance for dhimmi populations do not offset the atrocities committed on both sides before, during, and after the Crusades (especially those at Jerusalem and Acre), they paint a complex picture of political and economic realities in very diverse societies.
Finally, the Christian accounts from the period are absolutely incredible, and in some ways represent the apogee of medieval historiography. One cannot read modern historians like Runciman, Hans Eberhard Mayer, or Jonathan Phillips without frequently encountering the names Fulcher of Chartres, William of Tyre, and Geoffrey de Villehardouin. Each left detailed chronicles of events in their lifetimes, and perhaps it is to them I owe a debt of gratitude for first introducing me to the figures and places that tremendously enriched my tourist experience. And more importantly, to my growth as a perpetual student of history.
*All photos included in this essay were taken by me during a trip to Israel and Cyprus in May 2018.
**A special thanks to my “Islam and the Crusades” professor, Dr. David Wasserstein, who piqued my interest in the topic at Vanderbilt University so many years ago.